21 Steps

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The soldier’s gait was careful as he took his 21 steps, clearly rehearsed, from one side of the black mat to the other. His legs seemed to move on their own as his torso and head remained rigid with perfect posture. His footfalls were exact, measured and thorough. He stopped at the other end of the mat, clicked his heels together ceremoniously, and held his gun over his shoulder. After several seconds, he turned his body to the side, shifting his weapon. And shortly after, that, he took another 21 steps to the other side.

I watched the soldier for a dozen or so minutes and felt the solemnity of his position, the exactness of his duty. The entire scene was picturesque and the atmosphere was heavy with the responsibility of it all. The pavement around him shone in the light rain, and I could see his reflection perfectly in it. He marched repeatedly in front of one stone tomb, a single monument to the tragedies and consequences of war. The hillside rolled out from there beautifully, with dense dark trees, now leafless as they awaited snowfall, to the grey expanse of sky beyond.

The walk to the Tomb through Arlington National Cemetery had been haunting. The perfectly manicured rows of white graves, lost soldiers remembered by names, ranks, and dates etched in stone. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and two of their children were buried just yards from this site, a speech of his captured in stone around him as a small flame burned eternally over his grave. Hundreds of graves stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see, through sloping hills and valleys.

I had heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier prior to this, but I had never known much about it. The Tomb contained just a few remains, the bodies of randomly selected unidentified soldiers, American casualties of war from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. These four bodies, brought to America to represent all of their fallen soldiers, and entombed here.

The tomb guards have been here on vigil since 1948. With their polished uniforms of black coat, black hat, black sunglasses, shining boots, blue pants with yellow stripe, devoid of rank to show respect, gun placed carefully on shoulder, the guards constantly patrol in shifts, day and night. They patrol in heat, in rain, in snow, and in high winds. They patrol on Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years and the 4th of July. They patrol when tourists gather to watch them, and they patrol in the dark of night, standing constant respectful vigil. The position of tomb guard is highly revered within the army, and requires its own intensive training. When the guards here are not standing vigil, they are performing other duties, such as acting as honor guards at military funerals. They work consistently, and rotate through their shifts, in this honorary and ceremonial position of valor, standing over the unknowns.

I scrolled on my phone, curious about many things, learning that the first African American guard had patrolled starting in 1960, and the first woman guard not until 1997. As I read about how the guards had chosen to remain stationed even during hurricane level weather a few years back, I grew distracted by a few women next to me, laughing and chattering lightly. I looked up to see them, mildly frustrated by their disrespect, when I saw the guard take two steps off of the black mat and change his stance. He faced the women without looking directly at them, and spoke loudly. I can’t remember his exact words.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place of silence and respect!”

He paused for a moment, then took his 21 steps to the other side, where he began his vigil again. My heart was pounding nervously at the intensity of the moment. The women immediately quieted down and stood respectfully. Minutes later, I heard the man speak once more, when a child, who had been mimicking his march and movements for several minutes, leaned his body on the railing. Again, the man stepped off the mat and spoke, this time more softly. “Do not lean on the railings.” A further phone search said the guards only spoke when people were breaking the rules of the area, and that when people tried to cross the barrier, the guards could take action.

The rain picked up in intensity as a loud clock chimed a dozen times nearby, each chime resounding with weight over the cemetery. At the hour turned to noon, two more men carefully joined the guard on the mat and completed a classic changing of the guard. At one moment, when all three men turned to face the Tomb, and the commanding officer quietly raised a hand in respect, I got chills down my spine.

I walked away from the Tomb after that, thinking about the men standing guard and the men memorialized inside. I wondered who they were, where they were from, what their families were like, what legacies they left behind. I wondered if DNA technology now could take their genetic markers and find their families and identify the soldiers, and I wondered if this could be done for all of the rest of the lost, providing closure to families decades later. I wondered if it ever would.

I thought of war and atrocity, and when war is for the right reasons. I thought of political battles, and men with their guns. I thought of mothers worrying over their soldiers. And I drew strange comfort from the fact that I knew, here forward, that guards would be standing over the men in those tombs, every hour of every day, for years to come.

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Out of the Basket of Deplorables

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“I’m telling you, we are in the wrong war on terror!”

The man leaned over, looking a bit like Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future, his wispy white hair unkempt, his eyes wild and a bit mad. He was wearing black jeans and a dark black shirt with a single word printed on it in capital letters with a period: WHATEVER.

“We keep getting ourselves involved in the wars in Iran and Iraq and all those places, when they have already been at war for years! Have you ever heard of the Iranian/Iraqian war? Look it up, I’m telling you!”

He took a long sip of his coffee, an iced caramelly drink pumped full of cream and sugar, then leaned forward, speaking more loudly.

“Those ISIS guys, they are just the new version of the Taliban. And what’s the worst that could happen? They send some suicide bomber in, all crazy with some bomb in a balloon or something, and they blow up some stadium and kill, what, fifty sixty people at most. But North Korea, there is your real problem! We just keep ignoring them with all their political games! I’ve been saying this since before Obama, since before Bush, we just keep ignoring North Korea and they are gonna send a nuke to, I don’t know, Seattle or San Francisco or something and we have a couple million dead! Then they will see I was right!”

“Yup, I hear ya.” His companion, looking like a stand-in on the Duck Dynasty, had an ample stomach that stood out over his jeans. He had a long white beard, rather Santa Claus like, and a pair of dark sunglasses under a red ballcap.

“And those suicide bombers, I totally get it! They get a few seconds of anxiety and nervousness or whatever, then they blow up and they get to Heaven where they get all the virgins they want! I mean, according to them, they go out on their terms! They get to do it how they want! What’s their other alternative, to submit to, what is it, Sharia Law, and they get to get hung up in some public square with their throats slit! So, yeah, you go out on your terms and you get the reward. It’s like, kinda like, Mormons get to have all those wives in Heaven and they are just waitin’ to get there!”

Duck Dynasty laughed heartily. “Oh, I love a good Mormon joke in the mornings.”

Doc Brown took another long sip from his drink while his friend sipped his coffee. They were silent for a second before Duck Dynasty started talking, much lower and more even, leaning back in his chair comfortably and choosing his words carefully.

“The way I look at it, 90 per cent of people who are devout about their religion were born and raised in their religion. There’s a bunch of studies on that shit. And we got billions of people in the world in certain religions, and parts of them is pushing their religion to those crazy levels. That’s Mormon, that’s Muslims, that’s whatever the North Koreans are, and it turns into war wen we start killing people, but maybe the war needs to be on the religions themselves. That’s why I liked Trump better before he brought religion into it. He’s gotta get more voters and everyone is all God and Jesus in America, I know that, but I had more respect for him before he was swaying in those churches. But at least he’s not that bitch, Hillary.”

Doc Brown almost stood up he was so excited. “She thinks she is so smart, but she is so stupid! Just like all of them! All of them who think ISIS is like some world-wide problem, it’s so freaking stupid! We need, you know what we need, we need Harry Truman back in office. Or–or Porter Rockwell. We gotta dig them out of the ground and put them back in the White House to make more sense of the world, to make it look like sense again. It’s the same damn thing over and over. The Civil War, and here we are a hundred years later with the same problems. You can’t get people to change how they think and feel. People in the South would still take us to war over blacks and slavery. ISIS is the exact same thing. But I tell you one thing, Trump has a lot of things right! He stands up and says that if he was in charge, ISIS wouldn’t have the money they have to blow things up! And he isn’t gonna tell the whole world his military strategy, that’s stupid! You tell everyone what you’re gonna do like Obama did and they know what you’re gonna do and fight back! Trump is keeping it secret, that’s smart!”

“You know what I like about Trump is he’s tenacious. He’s put up Trump Towers all over, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, all over. He sees the whole country and he builds it up, and when he gets shot down, he gets right back up. He’s got what it takes. Clear vision. He’s the only guy we can put up to the top. And you don’t get there unless you’re a bit of a rebel.”

“Yeah, I think when history is all said and done and in the books or whatever, they are gonna chop Obama up for what he’s done in the Middle East! He’s a politician, but he isn’t no president. Besides, it isn’t the liberals we have to thank for where America is now, it’s Japan. If Japan hadn’t ever bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, we would never have entered the war and beefed up our military and economy and become the strongest guys ever in the world. I hate when the liberals try to take credit! And that’s what we need is to draw together as a country after 911 after we did in World War II, that’s all we need.”

Duck Dynasty nodded. “Maybe that’s what we need. Someone to piss America off again. 911 happened and we got pissed and look what we did. It’s just like Japan. We get pissed enough and we stop worrying about all this stuff that keeps hitting the news. We quit talking about cyber-terrorism and mental illness and the LGBT community and all of that, and we just go about our days kicking butt.”

Doc Brown threw his arms up in the air again. “Yes! That is exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or whatever you are! It’s just time for things to change! We may not be the best country in the world anymore, may not be number 1 anymore, but this country still has a lot of life left in it!”

“Yeah, it makes me damn mad. The whole thing makes me damn mad.”

“Well said, my friend. Makes me damn mad, too.”

After a few pauses, Doc Brown stood up. “Well, I gotta head in to work before the wife kills me. It was nice meeting you here. I’m Chris.” He extended a hand.

“Don. Great to meet you, too.”

The two men clicked their drinks together in a cheers and headed out of the Starbucks, where I sat at a table nearby, my fingers furiously clacking at the keyboard to capture their unbelievable words. I watched them embrace outside before heading their respective ways, viewing the world, like every other person, with their own sets of eyeballs.

the Frenchman and the American

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So what is it the Americans think of the French?

That’s a rather broad question.

Yes, but I mean traditionally. Culturally. There must be some existing stereotypes. 

Okay, sure. There is a tendency among American comedies to make fun of the French for being, well, cowards. They called them frogs was back when. I think it dates back to World War II.

Oh, that is nothing. That is actually a world-wide stereotype. I lived in Ireland for work for a few years, and was teased about that all the time. I think it is rather funny, actually. 

And there is a perception about the French that they love their wine and love their women. In the 1950s, the country seemed enamored of France. There were a bunch of musicals about Paris, all the Maurice Chevalier type, an older man constantly drinking wine and champagne and lusting after women.

Well, there is truth to that as well. We do love a fine wine or a strong drink. And we French men, we definitely love our women. It’s rather funny, many Americans expect me to be an expert on wine, but I am not. But because I have a French accent, they expect that I do. I throw a few fancy words around and everyone thinks I have a very educated opinion. ‘Ooh, this wine, it’s from 2013? That was a very good year for red wines in oak barrels. This is delicious.’ I have no idea what I’m talking about, but suddenly everyone is ooo-ing and aah-ing over the wine. 

The same with cheeses and breads?

Of course.

Growing up, I based my knowledge of France off of that chef character from the Little Mermaid, chopping up all the fish and crabs. Sacre bleu, what is zis, how on Earth could I miss such a sweet little succulent crab?

Oh my, you must stop singing. 

Clearly I need more wine.

The funny part of the Little Mermaid is it sends such a terrible example for children, and for women. It seems to suggest that 16 year old girls should defy their fathers and give up everything for some boy. Give up your legs, give up your voice, give up your life for the boy. Beauty and the Beast is the one that is actually based in France.

Oh my god! The candlestick! Flirting over the feather duster the whole show! That’s you!

I’m hardly the candlestick. 

So I went up to Park City today. It’s the Sundance film festival right now, so the city is packed with people in jackets and hats, bustling down the street in a rush everywhere with full cups of coffee in hand. I pass these two men, both of them clearly French, and very snobbish. They are sauntering down the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, blocking traffic, as they talk in their French accents about how awful the last movie was. It’s like the were critiquing a cuisine.

Well, they sound very French, except for the sauntering part. They must not have been Parisians. Everyone there is in a hurry.

Okay, so the same question back to you. What do the French think of Americans?

Well, to be honest, not just the French, but most of the world, at least the places I have been, they think of Americans as idiots. Very boastful idiots. Always going on and on about how America is the best country in the world. But when asked why, Americans say because of Freedom. It is so annoying. Much of the world has freedom, yet America has the highest prison populations, the most gun violence. Not that France is perfect, we definitely have a lot of racism there, but America takes racism to another level. I don’t see what everyone is bragging over. 

Well, fair enough. There is some truth to that as well.

I think the stereotype exists, but more in very religious communities in the south. In Texas and Alabama perhaps. French stereotypes exist as well, but only in various parts of the country. 

People from any country only need to see one Donald Trump rally or Sarah Palin speech to realize we have a lot of gun-toting idiots in this country.

And the gun violence. My god, so many mass shootings. It seems like every few months or weeksDon’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about America. I did choose to live here for the next few years. 

You definitely picked an interesting city to live in. Salt Lake City is fascinating.

It really is! I researched a lot before I moved here. But I am regularly surprised by it. 

Well, Utah is a state that formed outside of the United States government. Brigham Young led hundreds of thousands of people out here and basically became the emperor of the land, settling the whole place in the name of their God. So when the government came along, Young was elected the first governor. It is literally the Mormon holy-land.

Yes, but the city does not feel so Mormon.

Well, down the road is literally the headquarters of the Mormon church. Yet we have a lesbian mayor, a fairly Democratic government, and a huge LGBT population.

It is a fascinating place. There is much going on in the city, from live music to bars on every corner. I think I will like it here. 

Come on, you’re doing fine. You’re already meeting girls on Tinder.

Yes, yes, I have met one girl. That must make me quite the ladies’ man, as you say. 

Ha, shut up and drink your wine, Frenchie.

After you, American.